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June 30, 2024 12:00
Headshot of Lily Lindon with books. Advice on writing your second novel.
getting published
how to get published

Second Novel Syndrome

Lily Lindon. Former editor at Penguin Random House Vintage Books and The Novelry Team Member.
Lily Lindon
June 4, 2023
June 4, 2023

Writing a second novel is a fascinating and often surprising experience. Everything you dreamed of through the hours of writing your first novel has come true: you’re lucky enough to have had your book picked up by a publisher, and it’s a two-book deal! Now, while your first book’s being edited and made ready to print, you need to follow up with another one – fast.

You sit down to do what you dreamed of doing and… nothing. You find yourself out of ideas – or they’re too similar to your first, or way too dissimilar. You start to worry you’re a one-hit wonder. The first novel was a fluke. You’re not a real writer after all. They say everyone has a novel in them – but maybe you only have a novel in you, and you’ll never be able to write another one again.

Or perhaps you spent years working on your first novel, only to end up making the decision to put it ‘in the drawer’, chalking it up to necessary experience. You’re ready to start again with all the skills you’ve built up. It’ll be a doddle this time! And yet, now you’re sitting at the blank page, you feel like you haven’t learned anything at all. If anything, you feel like you’re even less equipped than you were before.

Sounding familiar? Then you may have a bad case of Second Novel Syndrome. As her second novel, My Own Worst Enemy, publishes this week, author and editor Lily Lindon provides some consoling words and encouraging advice for how to write your second novel.

The Infamous ‘Second Novel Syndrome’

Like musicians’ ‘difficult second album’, writing a second book can be such a challenging experience it’s described as a medical condition. Second Novel Syndrome (achoo!) is characterised by fluctuating symptoms of terror, panic and apathy towards your new project, and often makes the writer’s immune system vulnerable to another syndrome – Imposter Syndrome.

But why? You’d think the first time would be the hardest: you’re new to everything, your writing muscles haven’t yet been flexed, you need to build up your skills, your stamina, your voice ­– there’s so much information to take in and inspirational books to read and ego swings to ride…

With your first novel, you didn’t have a deadline. Writers often spend years on their first novel – and although that can sometimes create its own problems, you do at least have time on your side. So then, if you do have it published, especially if it’s in a multiple-book deal, the deadline can hit like whiplash. Commercial publishers often want their new authors to publish a book a year – and therefore go from scratch to a first draft in six months, and multiple redrafts within nine months.

When writing your first novel, you also don’t already have great expectations. Regardless of your relationship with the quality of the material itself, you’re probably impressed and proud of yourself for writing at all. You just want to finish it. But the long-awaited achievement of completing your first novel can wear off alarmingly quickly, and then sitting down to write your next one has lost its novelty. Now it’s just what you do, and you’re likely wearing rose-tinted glasses looking back at the days your first draft came easily. Now, it’s all too easy to lose your momentum and your wonder, and instead be weighed down by pressure or ennui.

But isn’t that amazing? It’s easy for the goalposts to keep shifting – it happens in every part of our lives. But if you’re suffering from a case of Second Novel Syndrome, try to take a step back and marvel at how far you’ve come on your own journey. It won’t feel the same as your first book – because it’s not your first! And with a bit of reframing, perhaps you can see that as its own pleasure and privilege.

It’s easy for the goalposts to keep shifting – it happens in every part of our lives.

Every book will have its own process. Yes, you absolutely train your muscles as a writer, and some elements of storytelling, once learned, will never be forgotten. But there is no one-size-fits-all formula. You’re not a robot! The process of writing a novel is always going to be as unique as the story itself.

My ‘Second Novel Syndrome’ Symptoms

Writing my second novel felt like a series of hurdles I hadn’t anticipated. Though the specifics will be unique to everyone, I hope that detailing some of mine might help others with the condition.

When my first novel, Double Booked, was acquired, I had a deadline of around six months to write the first draft of my next one. This meant that for months, I was torn between two novels – doing final edits for the first while I was planning what would become my second, and then promoting Double Booked while writing and editing My Own Worst Enemy. It felt disorientating, doing my first publicity interviews about a story I’d started writing years prior, while my mind was in the mechanics of an entirely new story. (I was also, in the meantime, still working my other job as an editor, and also going through various huge life changes including a major break-up and moving house. Classic.)

First, I had to decide on the idea for book two: my publishers had approved an idea I’d sent on submission, but it wasn’t inspiring me anymore, and I was desperate to have something that we all agreed had a spark. But I worried that I needed to start right now – and got quite a way into planning even while the doubt niggled at me. After weeks of angst, I suddenly realised something my friends teased me about could be a book idea – I fancy people who look like me. When I said this to my publisher, she laughed, and I knew this was what I wanted to turn into my next rom-com.

My next hurdle was trying to skip stages. Going against every bit of advice I teach and believe in as an editor, I thought ‘hey, I’ve written a book already now, I should surely try to skip the rubbish first draft stage, and write a gorgeous quality novel the first time’. Ha.

When that inevitably didn’t work, I tried to avoid the first draft in a different way – overthinking the plan. I had completely lost confidence in my ability to write a fun scene or to find things out as I went along. I thought, I have a team who are expecting something from me now, it must tick all the boxes. I tried to work out every little scene of the novel beforehand, which was not only exhausting and boring, it was also pretty pointless. I would then sit down to write and find my characters misbehaving, and that all my favourite details were ones that I’d thrown in accidentally, which derailed the direction of the plot.

So, finally, on the third attempted draft, I surrendered. I asked myself: how could I make this feel fun again? How could I remember what it’s like to play on the page? What’s the book I want to write, right now?

The answer to that, obviously, was an enemies-to-lovers romcom about two rival actors who keep meeting in audition rooms for the same few roles for ‘short-haired-lesbian’, featuring pirate Shakespeare, gorgeous best friends, flirty stage fights, way too much pizza, and a big pet pig. (Why yes, you absolutely should read it! Here’s the order link for My Own Worst Enemy!)

How could I make this feel fun again? How could I remember what it’s like to play on the page? What’s the book I want to write, right now?

I truly can’t believe I’m now in the publication week for my second book. I think I still have the Syndrome, just in a new variant: every day I feel like I’m behind, that I should know what I’m doing by now, I should be promoting it more – or less – or differently. I’ve also been working on writing my third novel and I hate to say it but if I thought Second Novel Syndrome was bad, I was not prepared for Third Novel Syndrome…  

Lily Lindon on writing a second novel

Advice from writers on writing your second novel

Writing this blog and giving myself secondhand advice has been something of a medication in itself. Something else that was definitely useful was speaking to the other published authors in The Novelry coaching team, and hearing how normal it is. We all experienced it. Fortunately, they also have some practical tips from the other side to share with you!

If your first novel is being published…

Use the deadline

What really helped me (although it didn’t at first) was being given six months to write a sequel to a book that had taken me four years. It was beyond terrifying but I just had no choice other than to write it, there wasn’t time to overthink it. So if you get a chance of a tight turnaround I would jump at it.
—Piers Torday
If there’s a chance to get stuck into number two before the first publishes, that’s so useful. You can be too self-conscious afterwards, overthinking reviews and therefore mistrustful of your own instincts.
—Kate Riordan

Work with your editor

Don’t expect it to be perfect when it goes to your editor. It’s a new experience but they expect a rougher draft this time, knowing you’ll be sending an earlier version than your debut.
—Amanda Reynolds
If you have a multi-book deal, I would suggest a chat with your editor about the concept for your next one nice and early so they’re nominally on board with it. Usually you’ll have submitted a rough second idea (probably just a paragraph) before the acquisition of your first novel anyway, so chat early on about that second idea to check they genuinely like that one too, and if so what aspects most speak to them.
—Kate Riordan

Separate publication from the creative process

The thing that helped me most at second novel stage was my agent telling me that the only thing I could really control was the writing. Not the marketing, publicity, sell in, reviews and so on. Just writing the best book I could. It helped me with dividing the creative process from everything else that was going on.
—Anna Mazzola
Keep your faith. By the time most writers are working on a follow up, some of that ‘first novel’ innocence will have been lost. But know that, ultimately, that loss will serve you well. Being well aware of the highs and lows of being published is an important part of the ultimate journey. It’ll help you cultivate resilience, and perspective – and, if you can, a sense of humour – things that are pretty much essential if you want anything approaching a long career. But in the short-term it can feel like a bit of a shock, to have reality rudely intrude on your fiction dream: to realise that your novel will never be as important to anybody else but yourself (of course not, how could it?); that some people will hate it, or, perhaps even worse, consider it ‘meh’; that when it comes to driving meaningful sales you can feel quite impotent (at the same time realising how much sales matter to most publishers: ouch). So… hold on to the wonder, the faith, at all costs.
—Emylia Hall

And if your first novel hasn’t been published (yet)…

Firstly, remember that you’re in good company! So many writers who later find success abandoned their first (and second, and third, and later) books in a drawer.

Every process is different. You are not behind. You are not less likely to triumph another time. You always have more chances.

This time, you’ve given yourself the gift of a clean slate. And when you write again, you have skills and equipment from your previous quest – perhaps a writing routine that works for you, perhaps improved stamina and focus and play, perhaps a favourite inspiring novel, the skill of knowing how to show don’t tell, or how to cut your adverbs – and although you may not end up using all of them, or at least not in the way you did before, some may be just the right tool at the right time.

But don’t underestimate the psychological impact of finishing that first novel. You spent a huge amount of time with it and, especially if you were writing about subjects close to you, it was likely a vulnerable and emotional process. It’s understandable, normal, and human to be disappointed and confused if it didn’t end the way you wanted it to. As with any significant loves, I think that it’s important to treat your feelings with dignity and compassion if it comes to an end. Is there something you can do to try to give yourself some closure? To honour the end in your own way?

Then take a break.

Take time.

Enjoy the other parts of your life.

And with that time and space, those little seeds of ideas can start to grow. You’ll have an idea. You’ll have a yearning to write again.

If you stop itching, the syndrome will clear up on its own.

My Own Worst Enemy by Lily Lindon is published by Aria Fiction.

 

Write your second novel with confidence.

If you want structure and support while writing your next book, The Advanced Class will guide you through your flourishing skills to write your best story ever. Establish a high-stakes story that allows you to achieve your ambitions, whether that’s commercial sales figures, awards listings, or creative fulfillment. With this class, you’ll gain absolute control of your story from the first moment you outline your structure and plot. Sign up for The Advanced Class here.

Someone writing in a notebook
Lily Lindon. Former editor at Penguin Random House Vintage Books and The Novelry Team Member.
Lily Lindon

Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an Editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie.

Members of The Novelry team